Partition memories: writers try to make sense of the violence in the past

New books listen to voices of 1947 survivors to understand the impact of the Partition on people’s lives and on a city — Delhi; they explain why documenting these stories are important, and how these experiences reflect on the present

November 30, 2023 10:30 am | Updated 10:30 am IST

Interior of a puja pandal on the theme of ‘refugees journey after the partition of 1947’ ahead of the Durga Puja festival, in Kolkata, on October 17.

Interior of a puja pandal on the theme of ‘refugees journey after the partition of 1947’ ahead of the Durga Puja festival, in Kolkata, on October 17. | Photo Credit: PTI

In Delhi Reborn: Partition and Nation Building in India’s Capital (Stanford University Press), shortlisted for the NIF Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Prize 2023, Rotem Geva argues that the city was remade by the twin events of Partition and Independence. Facing arduous challenges like migration and communal violence, she traces how the city changed because of the riots, and why tensions over “belonging and citizenship” linger. Geva also traces the struggle post 1947, “between the urge to democratise political life in the new republic and the authoritarian legacy of colonial rule, augmented by the imperative to maintain law and order in the face of the Partition crisis.”

Two other books chronicle the people who faced the crisis, listening to the call of Ranajit Guha who sought a writing of history that listened to the small voices, the “sighs and whispers of everyday life.” In documenting the past, he wanted history to pay attention to the rhythms of daily existence. Pranav Kohli follows this call in his book, Memories in the Service of the Hindu Nation: The Afterlife of the Partition of India (Cambridge University Press). Based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi and its surrounding areas between 2017 and 2018 with Partition survivors from west Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, it locates the rise of far-right nationalism within globalisation and memories of victimhood. The author shows what makes up cycles of violence by connecting the re-inscription of trauma in Partition memories to the self-serving justifications of the contemporary violence of Hindu nationalism.

Waves of writing

There have been waves of writing about the Partition, both fiction and non-fiction. Saadat Hasan Manto, Amrita Pritam, Khushwant Singh, Krishna Sobti, Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Veena Das, Yasmin Khan, Anchal Malhotra have all documented 1947’s defining experience and its aftermath in their narratives, sometimes touching on personal stories.

Kohli’s starting point is his grand-aunt who was a child during Partition and recalled growing up in a refugee colony in Delhi and later at a resettlement colony. He argues that Hindu nationalism serves as a form of theodicy for his Hindu upper caste informants’ experience of the death and suffering of Partition. “Transcending the ‘uselessness’ of their suffering through its nationalist idioms of ‘sacrifice’ and ‘martyrdom’, Hindu nationalism helps rationalise death and suffering,” he argues. We empathise with survivors and their pain and suffering, says Kohli, but when they demand an “eye for an eye” for past suffering, there is a troubling dissonance, raising questions about who is a victim, who is an aggressor. Kohli’s study of memories of Partition and how present-day politics and power impact them is a pertinent read in the time of a rise in global authoritarianism.

Preserving stories

In The Speaking Window: Tales from a Bloodied Timeline (Oxford University Press), three writers Sandeep Dutt, Faisal Hayat and Ritika embark on a quest to find people on both sides of the border who suffered Partition. The initiative Bolti Khidki (speaking window) began with the story of Prem Singh Bajaj who taught Urdu for decades, the language he fell in love with in the land of his birth —Baaran, Sargodha, now in Pakistan. His words (in the chapter, ‘The Light Preserver’) resonate throughout the book: “ is easy for us to think that ‘we suffered more and they suffered less’. We are just victims of extremism, which has always been a bane. If these two countries, forget their woes with each other, let go off their grudges and live like good neighbours, then many of the problems would get resolved automatically...”

Fatimah Noreen was a child in Delhi, her father’s place of work, during Partition, and had to take an arduous journey back to Pakistan when the violence escalated. She finally made a life for herself in Rawalpindi but abandoned by her children, she finds it hard to accept her circumstances, torn asunder by the madness during Partition, followed by the turmoil in her personal life. In all, 47 stories are featured in the book, cutting across regions and communities.

In Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (Women Unlimited/Kali for Women), Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin write that Partition is a metaphor for irreparable loss -- “ is the collective memory of thousands of displaced families on both sides of the border that have imbued a rather innocuous word — partition — with its dreadful meaning: a people violently displaced, a country divided.”

‘Complicated legacy’

As they travelled from place to place, speaking to men and women, Menon and Bhasin carried with them not only individual memories of loss and dispossession but a “memory” of undivided India. People spoke not only about old friendships and old prejudices but also let out a collective sigh that they could not cross over to Lahore from Amritsar or vice-versa. Their book is all the more remarkable because it is a gendered reading of the Partition. Their area of field research being Punjab and Haryana, they began with the women of their families and then spoke to other women outside, gleaning from them information about life in undivided India, of social and personal relationships between Hindus and Muslims, and the composite culture of Punjab.

There’s a “complicated legacy of division and creation on either side of the border,” writes Menon in the preface, and one conversation that can have no closure is that on Partition. While there is no dearth of written material on Partition, there are more ways in which the experience can be told, adding to the literary, autobiographical, oral, political, social, historical and fragmentary narratives already out there.

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